Atlanta Injury Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Workplace Liability

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photo_318_20051101Although it’s common knowledge that workers’ compensation law prevents, in most circumstances, an employee from suing his or her immediate employer for injuries sustained in the course of employment, few know that the provisions barring suit can also extend immunity to contractors of the employer. The scope of tort immunity under Georgia’s workers’ compensation statute was recently reviewed by the Georgia’s Court of Appeals in its decision in Smith v. Graham Const. Co., Inc.

Even though Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act is at issue in this case, the workplace injuries under consideration actually occurred in North Carolina, where the plaintiff was working on a construction project for his direct employer, Edens Enterprises, LLC. The defendant in this case, Graham Construction Company, was the general contractor of that project. While engaged in this out-of-state construction project, the plaintiff sustained injuries, for which he received workers’ compensation benefits. Although he had received benefits, the plaintiff still chose to bring claims against the general contractor, contending that the contractor’s negligence caused his injuries. After initiation of the suit, the general contractor moved for summary judgment, arguing that the suit was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act set forth in O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11(a). The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff brought the current appeal.

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photo_26696_20130806Given the pervasiveness of workplace injuries, every state in the Union, including the state of Georgia, has enacted a workers’ compensation scheme to resolve claims arising from death or injuries at the workplace. Although the overall legal propriety of workers’ compensation schemes is well settled, questions regarding the constitutionality of certain provisions are still occasionally raised. For instance, in a recent decision, Barzey v. City of Cuthbert, the Supreme Court of Georgia addressed the constitutionality of certain provisions of Georgia’s workers compensation scheme that bar a non-dependent heir from bringing a claim to recover for a worker’s death, even if that heir happens to be the worker’s only heir at law.

In 2010, the worker at issue in Barzey was killed while acting in the course of his employment with the City of Cuthbert. After the worker’s death, the worker’s mother, his sole heir at law, filed a lawsuit against the City, which sought a judgment declaring that she had a right to bring an action against the city for the worker’s death. Although she acknowledged that the Workers’ Compensation Act expressly provides that compensation for a deceased employee “shall be payable only to dependents and only during dependency,” O.C.G.A. § 34-9-265 (c), and that reasonable expenses for burial “shall be the only compensation” when “the employee leaves no dependents,” O.C.G.A. § 34-9-265 (b)(1), the mother argued that these provisions, as applied to her situation, violated rights to substantive due process and equal protection under the United States Constitution. The trial court granted the city’s motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff’s constitutional claims were without legal basis and meritless.

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photo_819_20060113Although it’s a common warning, it is one that bears repeating:  always keep important documents in a safe place. This common admonition is at the heart of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Sanchez v. Atlanta Union Mission Corporation. At issue in Sanchez was whether a contractual provision signed by the plaintiff prior to his injury had released the defendant from liability.

The plaintiff in Sanchez was injured while performing a work assignment at Atlanta Union Mission Corporation (“Atlanta Mission”) as part of a substance abuse rehabilitation program in which he was enrolled. Specifically,the plaintiff was assigned to disassemble and move several steel-framed hospital beds from the main floor of Atlanta Mission to the basement. However, he was not given instructions on how to best move the beds, lights for use in the basement, or any safety equipment. During the course of his task, the plaintiff was struck in the head by a bed headboard and sustained head and neck injuries that required several days of hospitalization. After the plaintiff brought suit, the Atlanta Mission moved for summary judgment, arguing that a contractual exculpatory clause in the Personal Development Agreement that the plaintiff signed when he enrolled in the Mission’s substance abuse rehabilitation program released Atlanta Mission from liability. The trial court granted the motion, leading the plaintiff to file an appeal.

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photo_1261_20060310Despite the existence of considerable federal and state regulation in the area of workplace safety, workplace injuries remain a commonplace reality. For many injured on the job, workers’ compensation remains the principal, if not exclusive, form of financial recovery. Although many workers’ compensation schemes were designed to provide efficient recovery for injuries, some injured claimants continue to have difficulty obtaining coverage to which they are statutorily entitled. In one recent case, Ward v. Pre-Engineer Systems (PDF download), the Georgia Court of Appeals looked at an interesting question regarding entitlement to new benefits for pre-existing claimants seeking long-term recovery.

In 1973, a construction worker fell more than 40 feet at a worksite and suffered a variety of different severe injuries, including a traumatic brain injury that resulted in persistent cognitive impairment. The workers’ compensation insurer of his employer, Pre-Engineer Systems, paid for various workers’ compensation benefits arising from the fall, including rehabilitation services. Although the insurer had provided rehabilitation services benefits since 1999, it decided to suspend those benefits in 2011. After filing a request for services to be reinstated that was ultimately denied, the worker challenged the insurer’s decision to suspend rehabilitation services.

In administrative proceedings, the worker provided clear evidence of his current, complex medical needs and declining cognitive abilities, which are so severe that his wife has been legally appointed as his permanent guardian. The administrative law judge determined that the worker met the statutory requirements for rehabilitation benefits and rejected the insurer’s argument that the worker should not be entitled to rehabilitation benefits because those benefits did not exist until after 1975, two years following the worker’s injury. Although the Appellate Division of the State Board of Workers’ Compensation later upheld the decision, the insurer sought traditional judicial review and appealed to Georgia Superior Court. Unexpectedly, the Superior Court reversed the Board’s decision and concluded that the worker “[was] not entitled to receive nurse case management services, because this service was not available under the workers’ compensation laws in Georgia on the date of the Claimant’s work related accident in 1973.”
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